PLAINS TOWNSHIP, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono is celebrating its 55th opening Saturday.

It’s also the first time the track has opened in February, but that opening comes with some apprehension. Horse racing kicked off Saturday evening and despite the cold, the horses are ready. The paddock at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono was busy as racers prepared their horses for the first races of 2020.

“Opening Night is Opening Night. It’s just like baseball, football, basketball. There’s a certain aura in the feeling about Opening Night. Excitement in the air,” vice president of racing operations Dale Rapson said.

The 55th opening of the racetrack included free live racing programs. It’s also the first time the racetrack opened this early in the year. Rapson says now that football season is over, people are looking for other things to do.

“Football…. It’s just hard to compete against football, so the horsemen approached me and said ‘why don’t we try February and see how it goes because football’s over’ and if we get no precipitation, if it’s cold, I think we’ll do pretty good,” Rapson said.

“I am thrilled to be starting early. The horses love cold weather so they are very excited to get out, stretch their legs, and get back to work,” outrider Tia Shafer said.

This celebratory Opening Day comes after some potentially troubling news for the industry. Just days earlier, Governor Tom Wolf proposed to divert $200 million from the racehorse industry to fund education. The horse racing trust gives financial security to the industry.

“It would be devastating to the industry. It would effectively end horse racing in Pennsylvania and it would have far-reaching impacts for the state’s entire agricultural industry,” executive director of Pennsylvania Equine Coalition Pete Peterson said.

Peterson says his organization hopes to reach out to legislators to make them aware of the impact of horse racing and breeding industry in the state.

“We contribute $1.6 billion impact. There’s 20,000 people that are employed in the industry. Just the breeders and horsemen preserve 100,000 acres of open space as well,” Peterson said.

Just to give you an idea about that trickle-down effect, the number of farm bankruptcies filed in 2019 increased by about 20 percent.

Peterson says if the governor’s funding proposal is approved, it could put farmers already facing financial difficulties over the edge.

Post times this month at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono are Saturdays and Sundays at 5 p.m. After that, post times will follow the regular schedule in the coming months.